From Slavic Languages and Literatures to Russian and East European Studies at Penn

By: Mitchell A Orenstein, U of Pennsylvania

This article was originally published in the January 2018 edition of Newsnet.

In 2017-18, University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures took a bold step by renaming itself the Department of Russian and East European Studies. This change signified the Department’s desire to bolster area studies at Penn and embrace a more multidisciplinary and multicultural definition of the field. While some reasons for this move may be specific to Penn, to some extent the name change reflected a response to common realities in the field, making our experience of relevance to other SEEES departments.  

Penn occupies a distinct position in the SEEES field. As an elite undergraduate institution, Penn has long provided area studies training, including in Russian and a handful of East European languages, to its undergraduates across a wide variety of fields. Yet unlike a number of its Ivy League plus peers, Penn has neither a masters’ program nor an interdisciplinary area studies center, and produces only a small number of highly-performing PhD students. It has remained devoted to area studies for many decades, but to a more limited extent than Harvard, Columbia, and Stanford, not to mention large state universities such as Indiana, Wisconsin, and Illinois.

Penn’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures has gone through a number of iterations. It began as a thriving program that was the seat of Slavic Review for many years. Then a period of personnel disputes in the early 1990s drove the department into receivership and a formal merger with Germanic Languages. In 2002, it regained its independence under the leadership of Kevin Platt. Penn’s decision to change the name and focus of the department was an outgrowth of its positive trajectory since 2002, not a vicissitude forced from above. It reflected the unanimous decision of faculty in the department, seeking to further strengthen a department that was already forging an upward path with new opportunities for growth.

In essence, lacking an interdisciplinary area studies center at Penn, the department felt that it could advance its mission by transforming itself into a hub of interdisciplinary area studies. During the past several decades, social science departments had shed faculty and courses devoted to Russian and East European Studies. Since Slavic Languages and Literatures saw itself as reliant on the health of the broader area studies field, the department over time began to take on the role of an area studies program, for instance adopting courses such as Soviet and Post-Soviet Economics, which had been abandoned by the social sciences. In 2015-16, I was hired to diversify political science and political economy training at Penn, in partnership with the Department of Political Science. At that time, Rudra Sil’s Russian Politics had become the only regional social science course offered at Penn. In 2017-18, concurrent with the roll-out of the Department’s name change, the department hired Kristen Ghodsee, an anthropologist working on gender and postcommunism, social policy, and international communism.

The courses initiated by these new hires, together with popular existing courses taught by historians Peter Holquist and Benjamin Nathans and political scientist Rudra Sil, have re-established a social science presence in the field at Penn. At the same time, the Department has continued and even expanded its commitment to Russian and East European language and literature. It is in the process of hiring a 19th century Russian literature specialist and has revised its undergraduate major to include the possibility of advanced training in East European languages as well as Russian. Previously, the department focused solely on Russian, which is taught to the advanced level, including content courses taught in Russian, though a variety of East European languages had been taught through the intermediate level. Adding, rather than replacing, has been made possible by the School of Arts and Sciences at Penn, which has expanded the faculty ranks back to the levels that existed prior to the department’s crisis in the 1990s.

Throughout the 2000s, enrollments in Russian and East European Studies courses at Penn have gradually increased overall. Language enrollments have gone up and (most recently) down in conjunction with national trends. And in the last three years, the number of majors has dramatically grown, from 12 in 2014 to 24 in Spring 2017. This reflects more active recruitment, regional trends, and the broadening of the Department’s focus. Essentially, the Slavic Department at Penn acted to strengthen area studies with this name change – and it worked.

There are some challenges for the future. Now that the department has proven successful, Penn is considering development of graduate programs in REES. The department needs more resources to support interdisciplinary PhD training, in the manner that at most institutions might be done through an interdisciplinary area studies center, with fellowships and courses and programs. There remains the question of whether Penn should found a masters’ program, which it would be well qualified to do, but would plunge it into considerable competition over a not-particularly-fast-growing student population.

Whatever the future holds, the department is pleased with the results of its renaming so far. It will probably help to maintain growth in enrolments and majors into the future. It has enhanced area studies training at Penn and helped to counter declining enrolments in Russian language and literature courses, while enabling a possible expansion into advanced training in other East European languages and literatures.

What lessons does the Penn experience hold for others? Penn’s experience seems to me to be most relevant to universities that lack an established, thriving, interdisciplinary area studies center that promotes the study of the ASEEES region across multiple departments. Since Languages and Literatures sits at the center of the field, in some settings it may become incumbent upon that department to take over area studies training for the university as a whole and to, in essence, become the interdisciplinary area studies center and adopt or replace courses shed by the social science disciplines. That is what happened at Penn. And, for the present, it appears to be a structure that works.

Mitchell Orenstein is Professor and Chair of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.